New Jersey’s new teacher evaluation system benefits students

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

New Jersey’s new criteria for grading teachers ultimately will benefit students. Last week the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) released regulations for AchieveNJ, the blueprint for an entirely new rubric for teachers and even principals. It puts more emphasis on student performance as a benchmark for how well educators are doing.

Under the new proposal, teachers who instruct students in areas that have standardized tests will have between 35% and 50% of their evaluations based on student academic growth. (The DOE recommends the lower number.) For those who teach in untested areas, 15% of evaluations will be based on general school test scores. The rest of the annual evaluation, which eventually results in a rating on a scale that ranges from ineffective to highly effective, will be based on traditional subjective measures like classroom observations, lesson plans, classroom management, etc.

Will there be teachers and administrators who are misjudged? Sure. It happens in every profession. Is AchieveNJ new and imperfect? Of course, but it’s better than our vestigial, adult-centric system that defaulted in favor of teachers. Now we can default in favor of kids.

The missing link

Linking student test scores to a teachers career path is a politically-charged issue. Some see this approach as a direct attack on teachers unions, an invention of edu-entrepreuners dedicated to defrocking teachers and privatizing public schools. Charges Diane Ravitch, renowned education historian and beribboned defender of the status quo, “[t]hose imposing this punitive and inaccurate approach should be held accountable for their errors and for demoralizing the state’s teachers.”

Well, it can also be demoralizing for our majority of effective teachers to work with ineffective teachers. For decades, New Jersey (along with most other states) has assessed teachers through the use of a crude toggle: satisfactory/unsatisfactory. No one claims that this works well. But did you know that during a five-year period (2001-2005) in the Newark Public Schools, only five teachers out of 3,850 teachers were fired for ineffectiveness? In other words, .032% of the workforce was deemed incompetent. It’s not just in Newark, over a ten year period statewide only 47 teachers out of 100,000 were fired. Impossible, right? No other profession boasts such proficiency.

Status quo is unfair

Some teachers advocates fear that the use of a more granular and discriminating model may unfairly penalize teachers because of deficits in standardized testing or classes comprised of academically-challenged students. (Under NJ’s new tenure law, two years of “ineffective” ratings can lead to the loss of tenure.)

After all, linking student test scores is new to teaching and relatively unproven. On the other hand, we know the traditional binary system of rating teachers (satisfactory/unsatisfactory) doesn’t work. Or, rather, it works fine for teachers. It just doesn’t work that well for students.

The right direction for schools

A recent paper called “The Long-Term Impact of Teachers” by three economists, Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years. They found that effective teachers, as rated by student performance, have a big impact on students, including lower teenage pregnancy rates, greater chances of attending college, and higher adult earnings.

The new teacher and principal evaluation system will take effect beginning fall 2013.

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Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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